“It’s kinda cool that you guys are sitting down, it’s like Cabaret,” Dylan Taylor, the lead singer of BLANKS, says to the audience at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern.
BLANKS, to be clear, is not a Cabaret act by any stretch of the imagination. They’re a “post power-pop punk” group based in Toronto, known for their dance-y alt-rock riffs and anxious baritone vocals. Sitting down is not what one normally does at their shows.
But on this night in early October, the floor is full of attendees glued to their chairs and assigned tables. Head-banging and rhythmic engagements with the music are still very much present, but there is no chaotic mosh pit, no writhing mass of sweaty bodies pulsing to the energetic music.
Still, you can feel the energy. Everyone is excited. The intimate aggression of the mosh pit is there, just a little more subdued.
Welcome to a live punk show in the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the past 18 months, health restrictions forced the closure of bars, which were empty, other than the occasional Uber Eats driver picking up some craft beer for delivery. The stench of sweat and cheap booze from the crowd faded into memory. Toronto’s live indoor music scene fell silent. And the city’s punk community, like so many other communities, had to crawl back into the woodwork and ride out the storm.
Live venues have always been the places of congregation for the punk community. They’re where the anti-establishment sensibilities of the genre grew and took shape in the late 1960s through to the 1970s. When punks were forbidden from more public spaces, they made live music venues their home away from home.
From the battles against former U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s brand of religion and family values in the ’80s, to the disdain held towards “sell-out” punk bands like Green Day, punk has established itself as the cockroach of the music industry — not always seen, and has the ability to survive even a nuclear disaster.
Punk has always functioned as a grassroots genre, never destined for success at the levels of Drake or Kanye West. It therefore relies heavily on the community that has been built up around it to spread the word and get people to live shows.
So, for a community that has relied on in-person shows to unify fans, the pandemic, with its sweeping restrictions and closures in Toronto, seemed like a nearly impossible challenge.
“You’re dealing with a loss of rituals, being together. So punk, like every other culture, had to find ways to adapt,” said Daniel G. Wilson, a member of Toronto’s punk community and lead singer of Mississauga Ont. noise-rock band, JONCRO.
“Punk has adapted using the internet. People have been able to maintain connections they wouldn’t have been able to 15 years ago. Forums, live streams … the community has adapted.”
With everyone stuck at home, forum boards like Reddit or MusicBanter.com became the gathering spaces for the Toronto punk community and punks everywhere to discuss their favourite genre. New havens and safe spaces were created virtually to rekindle what was lost in the lockdowns.
Concerts on streaming platforms have become a commonplace event throughout the pandemic. Even other music genres have taken to this new format. Midwest emo band American Football hosted a concert on Minecraft back in April of 2020.
Wilson organizes an annual festival, Festival Lingua Franca, a three-day concert series meant to showcase Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) artists within the Toronto punk/hard-rock community. He said BIPOC punk artists deserve more recognition, as the representation of artists at concerts and in the industry in general, tends to lean more towards white artists, with Black and other POC members relegated to more “token” roles.
Lingua Franca has been taking place at numerous different GTA venues every year since 2017, but in 2020 and 2021, the festival was forced to move to a virtual setting. Zoom became the platform of choice.
Dates for the festival were announced on social media or forum boards, and all those interested were sent a Zoom link ahead of the show. Bands, usually performing from the basement of one of the members’ homes, would take the virtual stage. Attendees were given the opportunity to have the cameras on and show off their dance moves, or relish the anonymity and comfort of being left unseen.
Being able to attend a concert from a distance, to tune in from the comfort of your living room, might in theory end with a higher number of people taking part in the event in person. But Joncro said that wasn’t the case.
“Attendance is much lower obviously. The festival still gets a lot of grassroots support. It’s a sign to me that people still want Lingua Franca and still care about it,” Wilson said. “I’m hopeful that when we return to in-person, it’ll be welcomed back by the community.”
The virtual space, though it was the best the Toronto punk community could muster in such a tumultuous time, wasn’t the same sort of haven. For venue owners, the focus shifted towards surviving.
“It’s been difficult, we haven’t really been functioning for the last 18 months,” said Tanya Tonon, co-owner of the Hard Luck Bar, a downtown venue known for its focus on the Toronto punk/grassroots hardcore community. “We did a couple live streams while we were shut down, but then even that wasn’t allowed for a while. We were lucky enough that we got some government assistance, some grants.”
The Hard Luck bar also organized a GoFundMe campaign which ended up raising $35,000, helping the venue cover its rent and other expenses.
“A lot of the fans saved us actually,” said Tonon. “The venue itself suits the role [for the Toronto punk community], other people consider [Hard Luck] as part of the punk community, so we’ve just kind of adopted the role.”
The smaller, local nature of venues like Hard Luck have been the perfect meeting space for punks. Outside the view of the mainstream, they’re given the more grassroots ambiance that the community has thrived in.
Despite the ease of restrictions that has come in recent months, concert reschedulings and cancellations are still common. This goes for international and local bands alike. Post-hardcore California group Hail the Sun had to cancel their Toronto date at the Velvet Underground due to COVID restrictions, and Wilson and JONCRO cancelled upcoming shows in recent weeks due as well.
Tonon and the team at Hard Luck, like the Horseshoe Tavern’s management, had the determination to hold a couple hardcore shows at the venue, the entire crowd seated, hand-banging from their tables.
“We have done some metal shows and it’s been really interesting to see how respectful everyone is. Everyone stayed in their seats. It’s definitely different but surprisingly enough, the vibe was still there,” Tonon said. “Everyone was just happy to be there. We were worried that it would be a little too mundane, but everyone had a great time.”
“Usually when you have a bunch of local acts, you’ll have a four or five-band night,” said Tonon. “Each band brings 20-25 people, now you’ve got 100 people listening to your band that wouldn’t have listened to it before because they’re here to see your friends band. That’s how you find out about other local bands.”
That unfortunately hasn’t been the case when it comes to virtual shows. When you go out for a show, attendees tend to show up to catch the opening acts, and stay until the end of the show. But when everything is taking place online, it’s that much easier to tune in and out of the concert until the artist you actually care about makes their way to the screen.
With restrictions being lifted across Ontario on all bars and restaurants, the viability for more full-capacity concerts is a hope not too far down the road. But it begs the question as to how those concerts will look. If patrons are still relegated to designated seating arrangements, will venues continue to focus their bookings on more acoustic or melodic genres of music?
The team at Hard Luck, despite still having the occasional hardcore show, has still chosen to focus more on those types of acts, the ones more suited to a quiet and muted ambiance. Tonon said Hard Luck will continue to stick with arranged seating until the provincial government says otherwise.
But make no mistake, if given the opportunity, the punk community, regardless of how the concerts look on the surface, will do anything to get back to live events.
When each hit of the kick drum incites a jump in your chest and the howls of a hundred 20- somethings echo through a dingy room… When the smell of Old Milwaukee and Pabst Blue Ribbon overrides your senses, and the sound guy makes mistake after mistake, letting the deafening feedback ring loud and true …
Whether you’re sitting down or standing up, you’ll know that Toronto punk concerts are back once more.